Thirty years ago, a small novel was published in mainstream America. It was highly praised then and now, there is a 30th anniversary edition out. Back then, eventually the book came into Native American communities; perhaps introduced by the author herself, Leslie Marmon Silko of Laguna Pueblo ancestry, at a reading at the now?gone Salt of the Earth bookstore on Central Avenue in Albuquerque.
But the book in due course made its way into homes of readers who were always looking for something new, something different to read. Later, they might have passed the book on to a friend and friends of the friend. With effusive demeanors, many critics reviewed that small novel, Ceremony, as a tremendous achievement by a real Native American author. Finally, there was a Native writer writing about Native American issues and the protagonist and the other characters in the novel were Native Americans.
The novel introduced the main characters as anti?heroes; not as the Native American champions we wanted, where they would come into a situation and rescue a woman or people from their dire plights. There were no White versus Red, cowboy and Indian, issues here. Only very subtly does the topic of modern day war play in the background.
And the theme was about affliction of various types: including the worst sort in a society where apathy imbeds itself into a person and it eats away at the psyche and sanity. The internal identity of a person becomes distorted and would he find the means to set himself free.
In Ceremony, Silko laid out a chain of misery for the central character: Tayo suffers because he was went to war too young and went through an ordeal as a POW in the jungles, Tayo was subjected to committing horrors against foreign indigenous people; he returns to his native home in the Laguna/Acoma area to finds himself disconnected and everyday is a blur for him.
Tayo could not re?identify himself as who be once was: An American, a Native American, and lastly but not least, a Pueblo Indian. He can't find succor and healing from the stunning landscape and from working with the beautiful animals around him. Even his elders, who probably knew how to treat his psychological wounds, saw Tayo as a shadow lurking on the edge of the village. Ready to implode.
The chain of desolation leads to drinking lots of beer, an attempt to bury the pain. Of course, Tayo's Native friends help him lift the bottles and make him feel guilty about everything that he stumbles across in his mind. In several drinking bouts, they want to change him back into the old Tayo. They think he is acting better than them, of a higher class; not like the good old boy Tayo once used to be.
They don't understand Tayo's catch?22 and total ennui with life. But Tayo begins to realize that his friends could be part of his dilemma. They appear to be apparitions from the old culture disguised, shape shifldng as modern day Indians, they were on the path to destroy him. For the sewn in Ceremony, Silko weave words so masterfully and tightly, and in the process produces a tapestry of classic southwestern Native American country and memorable places.
Reading Ceremony is a ceremony in itself, a one or two?day ritual of reading from front to back, where your only companion is a cup of hot café crème every so often. You become afflicted yourself; the cell vibrates but you ignore it and hear a message being left or you rush out to get a quick bite to eat and your friends call out to you, but you ignore them. They think you have gotten too good for them.
Leslie Marmon Silko redefined the American novel in the 1970s; she made it okay for Native Americans to read about themselves, to identify with characters in fiction and nonfiction books. Along with a few others, Silko broke down the literary barriers of the era and today many Native American writers can enjoy expressing themselves.
There is a ceremony in Ceremony, the book. In light of the current war in Iraq and elsewhere, and the realities of many Native Americans helping fight the war, this small landmark novel is one of the books for all?time, dealing with post traumatic syndrome. Now considered a classic, Ceremony is required reading in the academic world.
Ceremony, by Leslie Marmon Silko was originally published in 1977 in New York by The Viking Press.
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